Edward Frager grew up in the hardware store. He was 5 years old when he picked up the phone and told the operator he wanted to talk to his grandfather. When Frank Frager answered, Eddie told him he wanted to live with him. An only child, he had been passed around from relative to relative after his mother left his father, but that day in 1934 his grandfather put his foot down. He went and got him and brought him home.
Home was Frager’s Hardware.
The store -- which had been sold out of the family and expanded, but still kept its wooden floors and cramped aisles and old-timey, welcoming, dusty feel -- was destroyed in a fire Wednesday night.
Edward Frager remembers how his grandfather built the store into a Capitol Hill institution. Frank Frager came from the Russian-Polish border to Ellis Island, sold ice cream cones out of a cart, worked at a lumber yard and became such a master cabinet-maker that he crafted many of the display cases in the original Smithsonian museum.
All day long, while his grandfather worked, Eddie Frager would play in the basement -- a dungeon, he said, and the best playground a little boy could ever have, with boxes to climb in, plumbing parts to sort and build with, BB guns and bicycles for sale. “I thought I had died and went to heaven,” he said, laughing.
They had an apartment over the store, his bedroom right over the neon sign facing Pennsylvania Avenue. He would look out the window at the people and the street cars rattling by, or play cowboys and Indians in the hedges along the rails, or, when he was older, hop on the back of a streetcar for a free ride.
He swept the store for $1 a day, and then got a nickel ice cream cone, more than any kid could possibly eat. He helped oil the floors every Sunday with paraffin oil, the smell of which always filled the store. One day, he found $2 while sweeping; his grandfather told him it didn’t belong to him, but if no one came back to claim it by the end of the day, he could keep it.
“Longest day of my life,” Edward Frager said. Honesty was the most important thing to his grandfather, he said, and he would often let people take things without paying, knowing they would bring the money when they could. In those days, doors were rarely locked at night. People would stop by in the evenings if they needed a can of paint. Frank Frager would sit out in front of the store in a canvas lawn chair, watching the people go by, friends with everyone.
“He had such a slant on life -- everything was good to him,” Edward Frager said. “I never heard him say he didn’t like anyone. It used to amaze me.”
Edward Frager remembered his grandmother, meanwhile, as “a tiger” who would jump up if she saw someone walking by with a window shade, or a what-have-you, and tell them they carried that at Frager’s, too.
On Friday nights in the summer, they would go hear the Marine Corps band play at the Capitol. On Sundays, the one day the store was closed, they would go to Hogates, a seafood place in Southwest, and his grandfather would always get the red snapper.
One night — long after he had joined the Marines, served in the Korean War, came home and worked at Frager’s for a time because he had promised his grandfather he would, long after his father, who worked there his whole life, became known as Hardware George, even on his business cards — Edward Frager and his wife took his grandfather to Hogates. They drove him home, full of snapper, happy, set up his chair for him, and left.
By the time he got home, his phone was ringing. “That’s where he died,” he said. “Right in front of the store.”
On Wednesday night, Edward Frager watched the news on TV from his home in Ocean City. “It was like part of me burning up,” he said, choking back tears. “I could see my bedroom window. It was like me, on fire.”